Gunshot detector automatically turns on stingray surveillance devices

A proposed gunshot detection system automatically turns on stingray surveillance devices to identify and track 'perpetrators of gun crime,' but it raises privacy concerns

Gunshot detector automatically turns on stingray surveillance devices

Sadly, it seems like all you have to do is check out the news to hear about someone being shot.

To help with gun crime, more and more places are deploying gunshot detection technology such as ShotSpotter. It uses acoustic sensors (basically microphones) attached to street lights, utility poles and even rooftops—installed about 30 or more feet in the air—to detect gunshots. Other gunshot detector sensors help to triangulate where shots were fired and alert the police to the location of the gunshot. While this all happens very quickly, reportedly as fast as 45 seconds, it also relies on a human to first verify the sound was indeed gunfire.

Before the recent Fourth of July celebrations, several cities issued warnings about using gunshot detectors to dissuade folks from participating in celebratory gunfire. The cops wanted people to know the microphones were listening for gunshots. Those same gunshot-detecting microphones have resulted in warnings from organizations such as the ACLU—warnings that the microphones could be remotely activated to spy on communities.

“If these secretly operated microphones can be remotely activated and used to listen in one the community in which they are placed, they can represent another form of general mass surveillance,” it said.

Most people wouldn’t be opposed to the cops finding a shooter ASAP, but a system that detects gunshots doesn’t guarantee the police will find a shooter who makes a quick getaway from the location where the shots were fired. A new patent proposes a way to track down the shooter—but at what cost to privacy?

Gunshot detector that automatically turns on stingray surveillance devices

John Houston of MIT came up with a “system and method of automatically identifying mobile communication devices within the vicinity of a gunshot.” The patent was approved on June 22. It says the invention was made with support by the U.S. Air Force, and the government “has certain rights in the invention.”

The new system would still use sensors to detect gunshots, but it proposes the automatic use of stingrays, aka cell site simulators, to identify and track mobile devices within the area of the gunshot. The patent states:

Once the gunshot location is determined, the control system may automatically trigger activation of one or more cell site simulators located near the location of the gunshot to identify mobile communication devices within the vicinity. Further precision in identifying the locations of the mobile communication devices may be obtained by using information from radio frequency (RF) sensors that intercept wireless RF transmissions from the mobile communication devices communicating with the activated cell site simulator. The control system may be used as a tool identifying and tracking perpetrators of gun crime and may also be used to located witnesses who may otherwise not have come forward.

Stingray tracking devices, also known as cell site simulators or IMSI catchers, impersonate cell phone towers and force nearby mobile devices to connect to it instead of the cell tower. After connecting to the fake tower, users’ locations, communications and other data can be intercepted. But it doesn’t just hone in on one guilty person. The ACLU has warned, “It also collects information about hundreds or thousands of other phones and their users.”

It’s problematic that stingrays are often used without a warrant; law enforcement and even the device makers don’t want to talk about it capabilities or how often the devices are used. But if cell site simulators were deployed alongside of gunshot detectors to automatically switch on after a gunshot, there seems no way a warrant could be issued.

Could it help track a shooter? Perhaps. Yet it would definitely be spying on everyone near the location of the shooting when the stingray automatically kicks in. As the patent itself points out, it could also identify witnesses who were too afraid to come forward with information. Those witnesses have done nothing other than be in the wrong place at the right time.

Is this another case of giving up privacy in the name of security? As is often the case with technology, there is potential for mission creep. Could law enforcement agencies resist the temptation to use those cell site simulators if surveillance devices were already deployed in multiple locations?

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